Siocon, Zamboanga del Norte, May 12, 2003 -- Thousands of people gathered 
here Monday to welcome President Arroyo, who arrived to inspect the town 
pillaged by separatist Muslim rebels.

Police said more than 4,000 people, mostly Christian, trooped in the town's 
square where Arroyo met with Siocon Mayor Cesar Soriano and other 
officials. "We estimate about 4,000 people and they came from all around 
our town," said the provincial police chief Marcelino Lipana.

Arroyo, who arrived together with Defense Sec. Angelo Reyes and Philippine 
military chief Gen. Narciso Abaya, visited first the headquarters of the 
Army's 44th Infanbtry Battalion in the neighboring Sirawai town.

Security officials briefed Arroyo about the ongoing operation against the 
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels in the two largely Christian 
towns, accessible only by boat from Zamboanga City.

 From Sirawai, Arroyo flew by chopper to Siocon town, where she visited the 
wake of several policemen killed in a firefight with MILF rebels on May 4. 
Arroyo was seen embracing family members of those who were killed.

The 70-year mother of slain policeman Jojong Cardenas cried when she saw 

"I don't know what to say, we are thankful because the President has come 
here to visit the wake of my son," the woman, sobbing in between words, 
told reporters.

Residents were waiving small Philippines flags and many chanting 
"Gloria...Gloria," as Arroyo's convoy of about a dozen vehicles passed. 
Women and children were spotted waving what appeared to be homemade 
streamers with marking "We Love U GMA," and GMA, Our hero, Our Savior."

Security was tight in Siocon town during Arroyo's visit. About 200 soldiers 
and policemen, backed bomb-sniffing dogs, were scattered around the 
municipal building where she spoke to the crowd. Armored vehicles were also 
spotted patrolling the town.

"Let us stay vigilant," she told residents from the second floor of the 

She also announced that one the country's cellular phone company Smart 
Communications Inc., has set-up a temporary communication tower in Siocon 
allowing mobile phone services in the town, whose only means of 
communication is by radio transceiver.

"People in Siocon can now make a phone call. Siocon is now open to the 
outside world. We will bring progress and development here," said Reyes.

Arroyo has promised more aid to Siocon and said she has ordered the 
Department of Agriculture to immediately ship a new variety of 
genetically-improved rice to help farmers earn more.

Her visit ended shortly before noontime and flew back to Zamboanga City, 
where she would fly on lear jet to the town of Maigo in Lanao del Norte 
province and Koronadal in South Cotabato, both places were attacked by MILF 

The military said 9 people were killed and 43 injured in Koronadal town on 
Saturday when a bomb explosion ripped through a crowded market there. The 
military said the MILF, the country's largest separatist Muslim rebel 
group, was behind the attack. (Al Jacinto, PHNO Mindanao Bureau)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved